Alaska training session inspires Catholic, Orthodox educators
Sixty years ago a Hebrew and Scripture scholar in Italy reluctantly agreed to teach Bible lessons to schoolchildren. Observing a child’s joyful response to Christ so moved the professor, Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, that she was inspired to develop a fresh method of Catholic religious education. She collaborated for years with esteemed Montessori educator Gianna Gobbi to pioneer a hands-on, child-sized, Christ-centered program titled Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS).
Today this eminent Montessori approach is nurturing the faith of thousands of toddlers to tweens worldwide. Since its founding in 1954, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has flourished in 37 countries and more than 1,250 locations in the U.S., including adapted versions in Episcopal and Orthodox settings.
Yet in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, CGS subsists only as a little known gem within St. Patrick Church and on a limited basis at Holy Family Cathedral, both in Anchorage.
Shelley Finkler, an Orthodox CGS catechist at St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, is working to promote and expand CGS among Catholics and Orthodox alike.
“It truly breaks my heart that this incredible Catholic resource isn’t more available to Catholic children,” she said.
KIDS SEE THINGS ‘DIFFERENTLY’
St. John’s recently sponsored renowned CGS formation leader Dr. Ann Garrido to present a nine-day catechist training session. Eight Catholics flew in from as far as Florida to attend. The only Alaskan Catholic among the 17 total participants was Catherine Bennett, a catechist for preschoolers at St. Patrick’s.
“I went to CCD classes when I was younger, but just teaching these classes, watching kids do the works or watching another catechist present a lesson, I learn so much more,” said Bennett, 19. “Kids just see things so differently than adults. It’s amazing the joy that these little kids have in catechesis.”
In designing CGS, Cavalletti and Gobbi — who apprenticed under Montessori founder Maria Montessori, a fellow Catholic — observed children during faith formation and classified three age levels. Between ages 3-6 in Level 1, preschoolers can simply relish the gift of God’s love with unabashed joy and learn the fundamentals of what happens during Mass.
The distinct CGS learning environment is called the atrium. Each atrium is stocked with custom crafted visual aids and small models of sacred vessels to stimulate the children’s exploration of Scripture and liturgy. The catechist presents the subject and invites children to use the props while contemplating and celebrating the lesson. Typical classroom materials like desks and textbooks are foregone in favor of unique handmade items, like a child-sized altar with a miniature chalice and paten, a 3D model of Jerusalem and peg dolls and sets for reenacting biblical events like the Last Supper.
Deirdre Darr, a friend and former classmate of Garrido’s at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, flew from Juneau for the July training. Garrido introduced Darr to CGS while they were graduate students studying divinity.
“I was astounded at how amazing it was for three-year-olds to be throwing out words like paten and chalice and understanding important doctrines of the faith,” Darr said. “It’s just incredible. Adults underappreciate and underestimate what children can grasp.”
Cavalletti and Gobbi determined that in Level 2, children ages six to nine have gained an awareness of right versus wrong and are honing their sense of morality. Thus CGS presents morality as an individual response to God’s incredible gifts rather than a set of rules.
“I originally looked for an alternative [religious education] due to a lack of fervor in my six-year-old,” said Brigitte Youngblood, who launched CGS at St. Patrick’s about 10 years ago before moving abroad. “I had a lot of wise women tell me how pleased they were with CGS, so I read and read and read. I could see that being Catholic was more about being grateful, and to elicit these feelings you first must feel gifted and have a healthy sense of how wonderful and various are the gifts.”
During Level 3, nine to 12-year-olds examine the liturgy, study faithful heroes like Saint Ignatius and Blessed Mother Teresa and contemplate what God calls them to do individually.
Catechists learn to respect each child’s unique perspective and resist directing his experience.
“We (catechists) are on this journey with the children. We’re all yearning to know Christ more,” Darr said. “Catechists are just the instruments; the Holy Spirit does the work. We just get everything ready and create an environment where the children can meet and get to know the Good Shepherd.”
Father Leo Walsh, pastor of St. Benedict Catholic Church in Anchorage and ecumenical officer for the Anchorage Archdiocese, dropped by the recent CGS training at St. John’s Orthodox Cathedral.
“Catechesis of the Good Shepherd does an amazing job of engaging children in the basics of the faith at a very early age,” he said. “I also like the very deliberate and thorough training that catechists must undertake so that the program can be most effective.”
The intensive catechist training that helps make CGS so successful also inadvertently hinders the spread of CGS. It is time-intensive and can be difficult to access and expensive for both the host and participants. Level 1 training is a prerequisite for Level 2, which is in turn a prerequisite for Level 3.
Unlike traditional Sunday school — in which a pastor feasibly could recruit a parishioner to fill an unexpected teaching vacancy by handing him a curriculum guide before class — CGS formation is a long slow process. No teaching manual exists. The formation leader presents each lesson orally as if she was presenting it to children in atrium, and also addresses the scriptural, theological, liturgical and pedagogical background for each. She also must instill Montessori principles regarding human development and education. Training for each level consumes 90-120 hours over 15-18 days. A single course typically is divided into multiple weekends over several months, or into two nine-day sessions a year apart.
The host pays travel costs, lodging and a stipend for one to two certified formation leaders. Finkler is finishing certification to become a CGS formation leader this year, as is a catechist at the Catholic cathedral in Juneau. Non-Catholic formation leaders, such as Finkler, must agree to present the training wholly Catholic. Finkler hopes to offer Level 1 training in time for prospective catechists to attend Level 2 training slated for next year.
Finkler estimates about five years are needed to firmly establish a new CGS atrium, which can be challenging in a community such as Anchorage with a largely transient population. CGS now is the exclusive religious education course at the Orthodox cathedral for ages three to nine years, with Level 3 to begin soon. Darr and Finkler share a dream of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd becoming the standard religious education in Catholic parishes.
“We are sister churches, and I want the best for my sister,” Finkler said. “Every child should have the opportunity to experience God in this way, like they do in the atrium.”
“Catechesis of the Good Shepherd teaches kids not just the nomenclature, not just the book knowledge, not just the moral teachings, but it develops them into disciples. It nurtures their love for Christ,” Darr said. “Since I first saw it, I’ve always said if this was our first model of catechism in the church, there would be a revolution — a good one. The children would be raised up as disciples.”